Cultural literacy doesn’t appear to be a value that all segments of society embrace. Or, at least, some groups in our world embrace it in a very different way from me. I’ve recently had a first-hand lesson in that, working with young people whose entire lives seem to revolve around test preparation, taking a test, agonizing over test scores and more studying. For more tests. That’s certainly not how I spent my adolescence, and I’ll note that I seem to have emerged from the lazy fog of an average childhood with some literacy and numeracy, however slight. But whatever academic benefit I may have missed by doing such seemingly unusual things as playing in a rock band and spending time with friends when I was in high school, rather than spending evenings and summers in private tutoring sessions, the one big difference I notice between us as adults is our different levels of cultural literacy.
Cultural literacy obviously takes a number of forms. I’ve heard it criticized as just “institutionalized geekery” in some quarters. And while I think it’s important that, for example, we have common shared references to things like Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark (which, by the way, most of my students have never heard of, let alone seen), I can understand the argument that popular culture knowledge on that level represents a very unimportant sort of literacy. It certainly helps, in discourse, to be able to use idiomatic expressions from films such as that, for example when I had to define the word “archaeology” for a student recently. But I’d wager that studying Shakespeare is probably a wee bit more important for gaining a deep knowledge of our shared cultural roots. That is, if the students I’ve met studied Shakespeare… Sadly, their cultural literacy is often so poor that they haven’t even experienced that level of what I would consider basic knowledge of the western world.
The question at hand seems to be one of values. When we consider what the actual value of cultural literacy might be, it opens up a significant can of annelids. (Sorry for using the science term: but of course I believe science literacy is just as important as any other kind of literacy.) Certainly, one can be very successful, in some ways, in our society having never experienced 95% of our popular culture. One could graduate from a good university with a degree in business or science, get a very high-paying job and ascend to a comfortable middle-class lifestyle, and never understand what is meant by expressions such as “Snakes… why did it have to be snakes?” And it should also be noted that even an “average suburban childhood” does not necessarily guarantee a comprehensive popular culture literacy. I freely admit that there are many holes in my own pop culture knowledge (particularly around Doctor Who, certain action movies and just about the entire genre of Manga and anime), and I claim to “study” popular culture! But at least I’m aware of what I don’t know, and acknowledge that it’s worth knowing.
In an even more disturbing trend, some of the people I’ve met who took the popular culture-free path through adolescence and childhood (these people would mostly, in my experience, be called “hippies” now, or were at least raised by them) don’t seem to think they’re missing very much. They still speak English of course, and have varying degrees of numeracy and science knowledge (just like everyone else), but are generally profoundly unimpressed when shown our treasured cultural artifacts for the first time. The average person of my generation would almost kill, for example, to be able to see The Empire Strikes Back again for the first time. Yet those to whom I’ve shown that film for the first time seem to react with a resounding “meh”. So, clearly, cultural literacy has a relative value that’s sometimes different from perception. If they don’t feel as if they’re missing anything, it’s difficult to persuade the culturally illiterate of the importance of the texts they’re dismissing.
But there’s a cultural component that it would be remiss of me not to at least mention. If I were to live and work in Peru, to pick a country at random, for a number of years and yet show zero interest in the language, the music, the history, the clothing, the food or any other aspect of the popular culture, I would certainly be thought of as sheltered at the very least. Or a bumbling ignoramus at worst: the very stereotype of an arrogant westerner who retreats into the cocoon of his own culture at every opportunity, ignoring the world in front of his eyes. But to ignore or minimize western culture is somehow acceptable, even noble. I’ve met people who are downright proud to have never seen Star Wars, for example. This brings up many issues, including at least two that are ironically linked: western culture seems to value knowledge of its own popular culture in a different way from others, and yet it also carries with it so much post-colonial guilt that the pendulum has swung to ridiculous extremes of self-loathing that ignorance is called virtue. That cultural quality, unique to this place and time, is probably more responsible than anything for the erosion of the “western canon”.
Let’s forget about “popular” culture for a moment and just think about some of the hallmarks of straight-up western culture that are ignored or dismissed in modern education. It’s possible to graduate from high school in this day and age without ever having read a Greek myth, for example, or knowledge of basic Greco-Roman philosophy, which is at the very foundation of western civilization. This is remarkably new thing in our cultural history. Up until the 1940s or 1950s, and in every time before that, stretching back to 200 BCE or even further, Greek and Latin classics were required reading for anyone claiming to be educated. John Adams, for example, treasured his book of Cicero as much as any self-respecting nerd today would treasure their VHS copy of the pre-Special Edition Star Wars. And he read that Cicero, in Greek, in his pre-teen years. I can’t think of a single pre-teen I know who could name Cicero, or read him in English, let alone Greek. Another example is someone like Carl Sagan, a personal hero of mine. When Sagan was a young university student, he chose not to immediately specialize and instead took a “foundation year”, which included instruction in Greek and Latin, and was a holistic overview of every aspect of the western canon, encompassing science, philosophy, art history, general history and literature. Only then was he able to specialize in his chosen field, which of course was science. But if he didn’t have basic knowledge of his own culture, I suspect he would never have been the “Carl Sagan” we remember today, host of Cosmos, author of The Dragons of Eden or The Demon-Haunted World. For him, clearly cultural literacy had a great value. I believe this to be true of every educated westerner for over 2000 years, but somehow in this modern era we have left that behind.
To use an analogy, some activist groups that are opposed to “Genetically Modified Organisms” in our food system often assert, “We’re doing an experiment and we don’t know the outcome,” as an example of the danger of those foods. Whether they have a valid scientific argument or not is ancillary: the point is that same argument goes for cultural literacy. We’re conducting a profound and remarkable social experiment, raising a generation with lots of supposedly academic knowledge, which in the parlance of our times usually just means “STEM” education, and little to no knowledge of our shared culture and how it developed over the centuries.
Sometimes we make this mistake with the best and most noble of intentions. For example, I recently encountered a student who said that her high school skipped Shakespeare because the Canadian government curriculum required their class to study Aboriginal folk tales instead, and running short of time during the semester, the teacher “called an audible”. An admirable sentiment, for sure, and having a knowledge of the indigenous culture of a nation like Canada is absolutely important for a well-rounded education. But to skip Shakespeare in favour of it seems rather like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It’s a profoundly anti-western thing to do, implying that there’s nothing to be learned from studying one’s own culture and heritage. We shall see the results of this and other experiments in future generations, and perhaps one result will be a continuing anti-western spiral. After all: if you’ve never studied Shakespeare, you’re unlikely to teach him to your children in turn.
It’s not all about what’s taught in schools, of course. I’m a product of the public school system, meaning that most of what I know about culture and literature I acquired outside the classroom, because it was a family value, and I was curious. So perhaps I’m exceptional for my generation in being able to identify the Greek and Latin roots of many English words, or knowing seemingly arcane facts about western cultural history. But surely I’m not exceptional in my knowledge of and appreciation for popular culture. I’ve met people from all different cultural backgrounds, with vastly different educational experiences, who are all united by their love of popular culture. My very first writing on the internet, for example, was for a movie review website run by myself and two friends here in Vancouver, back in 1999-2000. The three of us formed a slightly improbable group that included a guy from a Hindu background, a guy from a Muslim background and a garden-variety nerd like me. (We had a lot of fun defusing cultural tension after 9/11 together by slamming The Phantom Menace.) It wasn’t just our family histories or religious traditions that were different: I was a grad student in the sciences, another fellow was a College administrator with a business background and the third was an artist and filmmaker. What united us all, besides the fact that we were all Canadian, was our love of popular culture. That was a gift that popular cultural literacy gave to me, and I’ll always be thankful for it.
I suppose that, after the initial shock, my lasting feeling towards those young people today who disregard popular culture, or are somehow prohibited from taking part in it, is pity. I firmly believe that to live fully in the world means knowing as much as one can about the world. That means knowing a little about a lot, not simply a lot about a little. In their race to specialize and achieve high “test scores”, I feel as if some of our young people are missing the whole show. While the adults leading them to this behaviour may (and probably do) have the best of intentions, including the desire to prepare youth for what they perceive as a harsh and extremely competitive technological capitalist world, they may also be making a grave error, and in the process depriving youth of one of the most important elements of life: to simply live, in this world, and be a part of the broader society. You don’t have to be a popular culture “scholar” to appreciate the loss, or the danger of the omission.